WHAT DO YOU PLAN to do differently in the garden in 2020? Maybe something that didn’t work out so well this year, or a project that’s been put off so long that it simply must be placed at the top of the list for spring? Ken Druse and I have got some garden resolutions to share, a list that we recorded in December 2019 after a giant snowstorm blanketed both of our respective gardens and we tucked in and reflected together over the phone.
The previous time Ken had visited the show, just a couple of weeks prior, we got so sidetracked into talking about favorite tools that we rely on that we barely started sharing our garden resolutions, and then time ran out. So he’s back as promised to make his confessions, and I made mine–ranging from reclaiming grass paths that have grown too narrow, to tactics for avoiding overwhelm, and even a commitment to sharing plants (and the important of ruthlessly tossing some out, too).
Read along as you listen to the December 30, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: To celebrate the new year and decade, I‘m offering two giveaways with this edition of the show and blog: a chance to enter to win Ken’s 2019 book, “The Scentual Garden,” or a copy of mine, “A Way to Garden,” likewise published in this fast-escaping year. I’ll pick a random winner for each; details below about how and enter in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.
All you have to do to enter: Tell us your resolution. Please!
garden resolutions 2020, with ken druse
Margaret: Ken, you ready to confess? [Laughter.]
Ken: Mea culpa, mea culpa.
Margaret: Yes, me too a culpa, too. Oh boy. So, we’re not just approaching the end of the year, but the end of a decade, so we better make some hefty resolutions, right?
Ken: Yes, well, I’m not sad to see that decade go. Years ago I made a New Year’s resolution, and I’ve kept it, and my New Year’s resolution was to not make New Year’s resolutions.
Margaret: O.K., so sorry. [Laughter.]
Ken: So I like that you’re saying “garden resolutions,” because I’m going to make some of those.
Margaret: O.K., so do you want to start by telling me some of yours before I tell you some of mine?
resolution 1: ‘plant it anyway’
Ken: Yes, I’ll start with a real quick story. Many years ago, I was at Helen Stoddard’s garden in Western Massachusetts, and she was planting whips, magnolia whips. And I was with some of her friends and they said, “Oh, Helen, why are you planting such small trees?” And she was richer than dirt. And I remember she was about 75 years old, and when she was 90, she was sitting on a bench in the shade of those trees. So I try to remind myself: Plant it anyway. It crosses my mind, “Oh, I’m not going to see this mature, or maybe I won’t have fruit in my lifetime.” Just plant it. [From the Smithsonian archive of Ken’s photos, a few of his old shots of Helen Stoddard’s garden are here.]
Margaret: So no stinking thinking, as they would call it in a self-help program, right?
Ken: Right. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Right. None of that negativity. And the other thing is that if, even if you don’t literally get to sit under it like Helen Stoddard did, someone will. And so, yes. Plant it. All right. So that’s a good one.
Ken: Or plant for kids. Plant it for grandkids.
Margaret: Exactly. Exactly.
Ken: Because they’re cutting down too many trees anyways, so plant trees. I thought about my resolutions, and they’re almost all about woody plants. You know, I’m so into woody plants. Now you want to tell me one? Then I’ll tell you one, then you tell me one, then I’ll tell you one?
resolution 2: ‘1 section at a time’ (+ groundcover rehab)
Margaret: Ooh, well mine are a little more complicated, like, I really need therapy. Because—and I mentioned this very briefly at the end of the last visit to the show that you were on—that I have to acknowledge, speaking of 12-Step programs and self-help, of little mantras and stuff, “I’m powerless over …”
I’m powerless over some of those early groundcovers that I planted 30 years ago, or whatever. All these things.
I wrote a book about groundcovers. We were all into groundcovers. There was a whole groundcover section in every catalog. And a lot of them turned out to be thugs. And so they spread a lot, and that was a good thing, at least it felt like a good thing to a beginning gardener, but it’s not a good thing. And now I’ve got all these things that are romping, farther and farther, and they’ve far out … gone beyond their bounds.
And so, the problem is, and maybe other people listening have this problem, too, on a small or a big way in their gardens, if they’ve been there even 10 years or five years. Stuff that’s where it’s not supposed to be. It’s gone farther than you intended. And we can turn a blind eye, and then suddenly you’ve got a mile of it. And if you look at it all, every instance of that in your whole garden, “Oh, I need to divide this, I need to take that out. I need to blah, blah, blah,” you get paralyzed. At least I do, right?
Margaret: So my resolution was to… I made it this past fall when I was doing cleanup, and I said, “You know what?” I had a helper that day and I said, “You know what? Today we’re going to spend our four hours, we’re going to pull out this one section of Lamiastrum.” It’s sort of a nettle-like thing, a variegated groundcover. “We’re going to do this one section and then this winter we’re going to sit and have coffee someday, and we’re going to decide what groundcover plugs, little baby plants to order, native probably shade plants or ferns or whatever, that are going to go in this section that are not going to romp.”
But one section. So my resolution is: one section at a time. And so clean it up and replant it and then I can move on to the next because otherwise I’m all over the place and nothing gets finished. That’s how I am, I think. I don’t think you’re like that. I think you follow through better than I do. No, I think you follow through. I think you’re more fastidious than I am.
Ken: Oh, maybe. Maybe, but I’m not as tidy as you are. Maybe that’s cause you have tours and I don’t have many tours, but you know you were saying to pull out the groundcovers, and I was with you and I was thinking, well what is she going to put down—chopped wood mulch or something? But then you said you’re going to plant plants, because I can think of no better groundcover mulch than living plants. [For more on that: Read ‘Plants are the Mulch’ with designer Claudia West.]
Margaret: Living mulch. Right. And so I’m thinking, and I’m pondering and it gives me, because I did that section, it’s a big section, in fall, kind of prepped it. And I know that what’ll happen in spring is that some of the remainders that I didn’t get, I tried to dig out the root of these things. But they’ll sprout up here and there and I’m going to have to do one more smaller cleanup. But I want to be ready with a plant or a number of plants to make like a mosaic. [Margaret’s video and how-to on making plant mosaics.]
And again, it might be ferns, it might be, I love trilliums, I love some ephemerals, because it’s in a place under shrubs. So it’s bright shade, but it’s shade. It’s definitely shade. So I have to think about what I’m going to put there and I have the winter to do that. But I need to be ready in the spring. So that was my kind of resolution is give myself the time, I have the time to order the plants, to choose to order the plants, not a super rush job. And then I can move on to the next section once I’ve-
Ken: It sounds good.
Margaret: Yes, so wish me luck. [Laughter.]
Ken: I took on a whole lot of Lamium last fall. So we’ll see. And I’m sure I’ve already planted bulbs there. So, nature abhors a vacuum, and so do I.
resolution 3: let it go
Margaret: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. So what about you? Another one?
Ken: Well, this is a very hard one for me. You know, our friend, Marco, if he doesn’t like a plant, it’s out. But I, I have so much trouble…
Margaret: Letting go?
Ken: The groundcover’s is not so bad [to let go], that Lamiastrum, yeah sure. But when it comes to trees, I’ve planted a whole lot of dogwoods, Eastern dogwoods, from the mountains of Mexico, the urbiniana [Cornus florida subspecies urbiniana], which has fused brachts [photo above by Stan Shebs from Wikipedia]. I have lots of saplings that it, well, they’re 8 feet tall now. So I hope they have some flowers, and out of these eight trees that are very skinny because they’re too close together, the ones that don’t have nice flowers or a nice shape…it’s going to be a little arboricide, which is very hard for me. But that I think of Marco all the time.
Margaret: Yes. And so just for people who don’t know, Marco is/was the founding director of horticulture of Wave Hill, the public garden in New York City in the Bronx, and worked there for many, many years. A 52-year-old garden, and he was there probably what the first 30 or 35 years, something like that. Yes. Yes. So, and he is and he says, “Bury your dead, and fast,” which means if you have a languishing plant that’s looking just miserable, like stop fussing over it, start over, make a new fresh start.
Ken: Oh, you made me think of something. Oh no. Or give it away. Oh no.
Margaret: Don’t give it to me. You don’t give it to me.
Ken: Well, O.K.
resolution 4: reclaim paths, overseed turf
Margaret: Yes. So another thing that I’ve done, I hate to say that I’ve done wrong or I’ve been bad or you know, but, but that’s how I feel. And so I just want to say that out loud. That’s how I feel. It makes me feel bad when I haven’t taken my own advice or the wisdom that I know, from others. I haven’t set a good example and I am really what it is, is my garden is too big for me.
You know, it’s 2.3 acres and it’s a lot. It’s really a lot too much to manage and so stuff gets neglected. You know, I’m getting ready for spring tours you mentioned before in April and early May. The first ones are usually in the first or second week of May. And you know, I have to sort of say, “Hey, you know what, we’re not going to get to that area.”
And so what happens is I close off that particular area and I do that a couple of years in a row. And guess what? It’s a mess. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that instead of, because I’m again having the tours, instead of all my beds are in turf, so my beds are within grass, they’re surrounded by grass, there’s no stone edge or metal edge. They’re like islands, I guess is what I’m saying, in turf. And so the easiest thing is just to cut a clean edge with your edging tool and put on your mulch.
Well the thing is, though, the bed gets an inch bigger and an inch bigger and an inch bigger. Right? Because there may be a plant that flopped over the edge and made the bed a little messy at the edge, so you cut it a little wider. Well you do that for a few years without resowing some grass seed and rekindling that turf on the edge, you don’t keep the bed the same shape and size. It gets bigger. And then guess what happens to your pathways? [Laughter.] [Above, a grass path between beds at Ken’s garden in New Jersey.]
Margaret: Oops. Between two beds. You know, so I need to do turf stuff and I hate it; I hate growing grass. I hate it. I just hate it, but I need to do it. So that’s my other thing for the coming spring and actually in the Northeast, the best area is like mid-August to mid- to late-September for turf repair. But I need to do some in spring this year, too. Have you done any of that? Have you?
Ken: Well, why? Why do you hate it?
Margaret: I just feel like, I don’t know, I don’t think I’m good at it and I’m impatient, I think. And you need to keep it watered. And inevitably—I guess it’s just bad luck, you know?—but inevitably I’ll get out all the tools, I’ll do everything, I’ll get all the right supplies, I’ll do it. And then it doesn’t rain for three weeks. And you know, you water it the first few days, but then blah, blah, blah blah.
Ken: Oh, right. And you need to water it every hour sometimes. Right? But you’re not, and then they’re… Oh yes. Reminds me of when I lost my hair sometimes, that little patchy thing coming in. I do, I do renew the bed, the grass paths, and I kind of do it in the spring and I actually I did it this fall, too, and nothing happened, because September was so incredibly dry. But I usually, for most of the places where there still is grass, I’ll spread about a half-an-inch layer of compost directly on the grass and rake it in. In some places I’ll put some soil mixed with compost and grass seed and try to patch it over.
I bought some sod sometimes, and put that down, even sowed some grass seed in that when it started to fade. It’s a different color, which is kind of weird.
But I have these, I have these things, I don’t know exactly what they’re for. I think that they interlock and they have big spaces in them so I can put them down on the grass seed so I can still run the wheelbarrow over them and the dogs still will stay off them. And that helps when you, cause if you’re trying to grow grass with dogs and a wheelbarrow and yourself, you inevitably need to walk there. [Laughter.]
Margaret: The problem is, and as I said, I’m going to have tours the first week of May, I have tours in the first week of June—I have tours. So when is this grass going to grow? You know, so again, I’m going to be closing off areas, I guess, but I have to do it. I have to do it because otherwise things get out of proportion and misshapen and again, the pads get narrow and so forth.
So I don’t have to do every single one. And in fact, keeping up with the watering—and this is another place where I have to acknowledge my limitations and, and keep it simple—I have to pick an area and say, “Hey, I’m going to renovate this one in May, and I’m going to renovate this one in the August-September period.” You know, not do the whole thing and have the place impassable in every direction.
Ken: Do you ever use the grass seed that’s like coated with a moisture-retentive…?
Margaret: I’m, I think I’m going to start, I think I’m going to do that this year. And my objection is that a lot of that has a chemical fertilizer included in it. And that’s my objection because I don’t really want to purchase a product that has chemical fertilizer. So I’m going to do a little homework on that.
But I like your idea with the compost. I mean that’s really the old-style, best way to go about it. And there’s another wonderful thing that a friend, a science-y kind of friend, told me about not long ago: research from Cornell University and actually Iowa State, I believe it was, who got together because they wanted to. It was the turfgrass group at each university that was trying to help with damaged areas of football fields—that was where the research began—and also crabgrass coming into those damaged areas where the turf was weak. You know, because crabgrass is an annual and it will sow into any void.
Speaking of nature loves a vacuum. And so that research led to this, and they didn’t want to use herbicides to kill off anything and to prep the new areas, the repaired areas. So they experimented and came up with a protocol, and it’s best done again and again, like in August-September (and these are cold-weather, cold-winter zones that I’m talking about, Iowa and Cornell University, in upstate New York).
You do it four times in a row, two weeks apart in that sort of late summer into fall period. You overseed just using your spreader, like you would put fertilizer on with a spreader, or grass seed with a spreader, no prep at all, you just mow the lawn and you overseed four times two weeks apart, and with perennial rye especially, and it’s amazing the results they’ve gotten. So it’s like no prep, no core aeration, no dethatching, no massive bringing in of soil or compost. And so that’s another way to like fix areas that are weedy or especially have crabgrass invasion.
Ken: Well there’s the idea that the ones coming up are shading the next ones or something.
Margaret: Yes, exactly. And so, and because, especially again it was originally crabgrass that was one of the big problems and that tends to happen in bare areas. So there was the opportunity and also doing it in late in the season, you’re mowing even the crabgrass down so that it doesn’t set seed, so that you’re not getting more crabgrass for next year. So you’re seeding into these areas.
But it really is apparently quite effective. So I’ve read all the research reports, I’ll give the link if people are interested in that. I’ve got to do some of this in spring, however. O.K.?
Ken: I’m taking notes.
Margaret: O.K. I’m sorry, I’ve got blathered on about that.
Ken: Mow, overseed four times?
Margaret: Yes. It’s a very interesting report and it’s been sort of synthesized for lay people as well. But it’s very positive. So yes. [Read the synthesized report.]
resolution 5: clean your tools, share your plants
Ken: Well, I resolved to clean my tools and I never, I never cleaned them enough. I’ve resolved to put things away after I use them in my whole life.
Ken: I’ve never done that. I mean I do it, but you know, it’s just out of my mind.
Margaret: Were we separated at birth or something? Or is that possible?
Ken: Some people do this, you’ve seen it. You know, some people are cooking and while they’re cooking, they’re cleaning.
Ken: I can’t imagine.
Margaret: And you’re a good cook, but you don’t do that, right? You just pile it up.
Ken: Well I try. I’m better, because I’m mindful of it now, that because in the end you’re got all this stuff. So just try to do it if you can do it.
Let’s see. You know, along many times when I’ve traveled around the country speaking and stuff, I’ll meet people and they, they’ll make a promise. Like they’ll say, “Oh, you want that plant? I’ve got 10. Oh, let me send you one.” And they never do. Some people do, but most people don’t.
So I resolved years ago that if I say that out loud to anyone, I will follow through. And I’m sure they’re surprised. And I just sent three saplings of American linden [Tilia americana, above from Wikimedia] to Minnesota, to a couple who I met who said they were trying to find an American linden. And they couldn’t find them for their big property. And Louis made a wonderful box, and I sent 5-foot-tall American lindens, bare root, to these people. So I think that’s nice and I’m going to do that the rest of my life or keep my mouth shut. [Laughter.]
Margaret: O.K., so if you promise are going to follow through. O.K.
Ken: That’s right. And I have so far, a lot.
resolution 6: impulse-shopping control
Margaret: So and any other that you want to, any other sort of resolutions that you’ve got going on over there?
Ken: Well, every year I say: Don’t shop. It’s irrelevant. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Yes, I know. Don’t buy any more plants. Right, right, right, right. How’s that going?
Ken: And, oh, and then I ended up heeling them in. I think I might make a new nursery bed. When we first moved here, we made a big nursery bed and everything got plugged in. Then you could really think about it and still impulse-buy. But I’ve got some land across the river that’s open, but it’s got deer and it’s got black walnuts. So that’s two issues to deal with. But I might make a little fenced area. I’d have to get water there, too, because I like to shop and you see something and you want it. I don’t know what that acquisitiveness is about, exactly. Probably something that happened in my pre-1-year-old self.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Awww.
Ken: I fall in love.
Margaret: Yes, yes. No, no. I know, I know. I know. I say I’m not going to buy anything, either. But then, oh well.
Ken: And then somebody sends you something, even though I was complaining that people don’t. Sometimes, we get something from a company or something, and even though I don’t want that plant, but as we said: I can’t kill it.
resolution 7: open your eyes (‘garden forensics’)
Margaret: Yes. You know, I think the other thing is I want to continue to be more and more observant, and I’m thinking of this, I think, because I saw this article in “The New York Times” about fire blight moving north, a disease that especially affects fruit trees like apples and so forth. So it was very dangerous in orchards, but has been mostly kept in the Southern United States, and with the shift in climate, another one of these things that’s out of control and moving…
Ken: And resistant to antibiotics. [Above, apple with fire blight by Sebastian Stabinger from Wikimedia.]
Margaret: Yes. And so right, because exactly. And also some of our modern varieties of apples that have become ubiquitous, have less resistance apparently to it because it hasn’t been a problem in the North. And because of the way apples are grown in commercial orchards today, which is almost like they didn’t even look like trees. I mean there these like little… I don’t even know what you would call them.
I mean they plant them really close and they prune them really hard, and they want to get like 50 apples off each one. But the density of trees is so great compared to a full-sized tree spaced 10 feet apart or 20 feet apart. So the density works out to their favor, and it’s easier to manage them as these…again, it doesn’t even look like tree to me the way a lot of them are grown.
Anyway: So my resolution, my thing is that I have become more conscious and more aware and taken more time. When I see something that looks different to me, that looks odd—an insect I’ve never seen before. Just some disfigurement, something on a surface of a leaf, whatever. I am taking more time and I’m going to do even more of that to say, “Hey, what really is this?”
Take a camera-phone picture or take a sample, put it in a plastic bag or whatever. And when you have the time, try to key it out or better yet send it to—if it’s really something that looks like it’s bad, that’s having a detrimental effect on a major plant—send it to the pathology lab of my state university of the cooperative extension or whatever. But I want to be more conscious and I want to learn what do these things look like? Do you know what I mean?
Ken: Sure. Some kind of a garden forensics, I don’t know—what would you call it?
Margaret: Exactly. Exactly, exactly. And it’s worth taking the time because sometimes these things, like with fire blight in apples, if you have full-sized trees, if it just gets in at one branch, you can remove and destroy that branch and you probably can keep it from getting into the vascular system of the whole tree. Not when it’s been pruned in the commercial orchards to this weird little thing, because it gets through the whole system too fast. But, but you know in the home if you have two apple trees, you probably can save them. And so I just want to be more vigilant that way.
Ken: Well that’s good advice, and I think people should go to A Way to Garden cause you’re always writing about the next thing.
Margaret: I know, and there are so many “next things” that I’m, I don’t want to be all dreary and down.
Ken: Did you have any snow, this week [note: taped in early December 2019]?
Margaret: Like 18-19 inches. Yes.
Ken: All the trees are bent down. I think my first resolution is to go out and see what I can do.
Margaret: Yes. I tend not to poke around until they spring back up themselves, you know? But we’ll see. It’s warming up a little bit. So we’ll see if really cold and branches are brutal. I don’t want to really bang around too much else.
Ken: Yes, I know that’s what they say and that’s good advice. But I still, at least I should look, just like you’re saying, we should keep our eyes open and we should look for aberrations and anything else that might be odd and check out A Way to Garden. And I love when I visit your site I learn something and I learn something about the other creatures in the garden. Besides the-
resolution 8: be a citizen scientist
Margaret: Not just the plants you mean [laughter]? Yes. Well, so speaking of that, one thing I’d like to say to everybody as a resolution is—speaking of things like climate change and the impact it’s having and new challenges, it’s presenting for everyone on the planet, as in including, farmers and gardeners and so forth.
Everyone should join a citizen-science project in 2020, whether they count birds or they identify insects and post their pictures, their camera-phone pictures online on BugGuide.net, whatever it is, iNaturalist.org whatever you want to do as obscure or as mainstream, that data is going to really help scientists to keep track of what’s going on in different areas where they couldn’t otherwise have eyes. Right? So I feel like each one of us should do that and make it a practice. Even if it’s once a week, 10 minutes we devote to it, or half an hour. I just feel like that’s something we can do, and it engages us with the reality of what’s outside. Again, looking more closely…
Ken: What’s it called when you noticed the first bloom and spring and-?
Margaret: Phenology. So, O.K. So on that note, I’ll see you in the next decade, huh, hon?
Ken: Oh my gosh, you’re right. Thanks so much.
Margaret: Thanks for taking time, Ken.
Ken: My pleasure.
enter to win ken’s and my latest books
I’LL BUY A COPY OF Ken Druse’s “The Scentual Garden” and a copy of my “A Way to Garden” for two different lucky readers. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
What’s your garden resolution for 2020–or more than one, if that’s the case?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but sharing your resolution is even better. I’ll pick the two random winners after entries close Tuesday at midnight, January 8, 2020. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the December 30, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).